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Cuba: "We can't wait for change"

As the Caribbean island enters a new era of negotiations with America, what lies in store for Castro's closed country?

In Cuba word has it that it was the US grain farmers who pushed President Obama into opening a dialogue with the country's octogenarian leaders. Just six years ago the 11 million Cuban islanders just 90 miles off the coast of Florida were a lucrative market for US food exports. (exempted in 2000 on humanitarian grounds from the US trade embargo) But today imports of US corn have fallen by three quarters asCubagets most of its$2 billion food imports from countries prepared to give it credit – such as Brazil and Argentina.

So is Cuba about to transform itself from 60 years of communist isolation into a fully fledged member of the global economy? Probably too soon to say. But Cuba is changing big time and Obama’s move towards ending 50 years of crippling trade sanctions is prompting a tourist invasion like no other. Whether these are people like me – keen to experience the country “before it changes” – or those just in search of an affordable Caribbean holiday (14 nights all inclusive package deals for £899), there’s no doubt that Cubans themselves can’t get enough of tourists arriving in droves at their airports.

These days it isn’t just the Cuban state that profits from tourism but its citizens too. Private businesses are now permitted and the Europeans, Canadians and South Americans are bringing money to some ordinary Cubans beyond their wildest dreams.  Tourists are obliged to change their money into an artificial currency, the CUC, which is pegged to the US dollar and worth 25 times the local peso. So the 2 CUC ($2) it costs to take a bicycle taxi into old Havana from the Parque Central gives the driver the equivalent of 50 local pesos. My four-hour ride in a shared minibus between Havana and the tourist town of Trinidad cost me 25 CUC which is the equivalent of 625 pesos in local currency.

And the proliferation of Cuban homes offering B&B accommodation to tourists – first allowed back in 1997 – can bring families anything from $15-$30 a night per room, lifting some lucky Cubans out of material hardship.

Castro's Cuba

This is a far cry from the controlled and segregated tourism which Castro first allowed in the early 1990s. In those days tourists were mainly confined to state-run resort hotels on beaches far from Havana and Cubans risked an encounter with the secret police if they got too friendly with a foreigner. The country was at that time on its knees after the collapse of the Soviet Union left it without subsidies worth between $4 and $5 billion. Cubans are quick to remind you of  the privations they endured in the “special period” of the 1990s.

Of course, being Cuba, no private individual today gets to pocket all their earnings. The state takes a large share. To get a licence to run a B&B you have to hand over up to $300 a month in room tax whether or not any tourists turn up. Even the bicycle taxi boys pay $100 a month for their licence.

The Cuban government is now under Fidel Castro’s brother, 83 year old Raul, who believes that private enterprise can both grow the economy and keep the state machine in funding. Cuba analysts define Cuba’s economy today as “a public-private hybrid” and predict that “greater personal freedom will coexist with military-run state companies in strategic sectors of the economy and continued one-party rule”.

The sense of optimism in the population is palpable. “We can’t wait for change” is the refrain from ordinary Cubans who believe Obama is holding out the promise of an end to perpetual shortages and economic hardship. “Bring it on” they say about the planned charter flights from Florida, a proper internet connection, communication with the outside world, and even McDonalds.

The things western tourists find charming about Cuba today – the absence of consumerism, buildings with their original (if decayed) facades, those vintage American cars, empty motorways (car ownership is beyond the pockets of most people), the ubiquitous images of Che Guevara, a salsa band in virtually every bar and restaurant - may well be the things that could disappear quite quickly.

The other side of dissent

Some negative aspects of life in Cuba are hidden away from the tourists. And these too could be starting to shift. For over 50 years Fidel Castro defied all predictions, surviving repeated US attempts to overthrow or kill him. Dissent was seen as a mortal threat and Cuba’s one-party state has exercised control over virtually all aspects of Cuban life through the Communist Party and its affiliated mass organisations, the government bureaucracy and the state security apparatus. But in January of this year a raft of high profile political prisoners were released as part of the thawing of relations with the US.

However, there are still many more political prisoners. Human Rights Watch says short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and other critics actually increased in 2014 when nearly 9,000 Cubans were given short-term prison sentences.

That’s probably why conversations amongst Cubans about politics, the state or even complaints about service deliveries – anything that the State is responsible for providing – are held discreetly, whilst keeping watch for prying eyes. The Cuban state security police were trained by the East German Stasi so you can never be sure whether a neighbour or friend is reporting on you. The danger of being detained as a dissident is real.

No wonder I got a slightly dumfounded response when I asked Cubans how the residents of Old Havana can put up with having their narrow streets dug up for months on end, forcing them to pick their way past piles of rubble every day. In two weeks I spotted only one road building team at work. “Who do you complain to?” I asked. “Complain? This is Cuba!” was the response. 

To survive in Cuba there’s no point insisting on your rights. You go with the flow. The state still makes the decisions. And there’s no doubt that, in some ways it is a benevolent state which provides homes, basic food rations for everyone (sugar, oil and rice) education and health care. Whether being easy-going, patient and friendly is a Cuban national trait born of such paternalism or a survival mechanism is hard to say.

Two weeks before I arrived a building collapsed in a street one block from the Prado in Central Havana, spilling bricks and rubble across the street. The rubble was still there a month later, despite the evident risk to health and safety. But the residents shrug their shoulders and get on with their lives.

After the 1959 Revolution the rural and urban poor were rehoused in the buildings vacated by the one million Cubans who chose exile to being part of a socialist experiment. Some moved into the beautiful seaside villas of Miramar and Vedado on the edge of Havana but were then unable to afford the upkeep. So over the years many of these villas were handed over to those with bigger pockets. In the capital the poor have largely stayed in the more densely populated Old and Central Havana. Though the inside of their homes are frequently spotless, the buildings themselves are crumbling around them. No one in Cuba has actual ownership of buildings so cynics say that there’s been no vested interest in repairing them. But noone had the money either. So the structural decay has festered for decades, leaving Havana’s iconic - and captivating - spectacle of a historic cityscape ravaged by time.

Rebuilding ruins


One of the advantages of being a centralised state is that you have the authority and power to implement a proper town plan. For the last 20 years, thanks to tourism, Cuba has been carefully reinvesting its share of profits from running tourist hotels in Havana into the restoration of Old Havana and its stunningly beautiful Spanish colonial buildings.

In charge is the Office of the City Historian which estimates that there are some 900 important buildings within what was the walled city of Havana, of which over half urgently require attention. While I was there they removed the corrugated iron from the newly paved steps of the Capitolio building, undergoing a five-year internal overhaul costing millions.

The city’s restoration project is an example of what makes Cuba so different from the rest of the Caribbean. High levels of education, a strong cultural heritage, social commitment and, now, an acceptance that Cuba can no longer isolate itself from the world.

Its director Dr Eusebio Leal Spengler had the city declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back when Cuba faced ruin after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His office now employs 7000 people, not just in construction, renovation and management but also in running cultural programmes. This is all part of a plan to keep the city alive and kicking rather than make it into a mere tourist museum.

Mindful of the need to improve the appalling and overcrowded living conditions of  Old Havana’s residents, the Office restores small groups of buildings for a mixture of end uses. In Compostela Street the restoration of the neo-Gothic Farmacia La Reunion for example is providing the focal point for a school, shops, a museum, a church, a small hotel to be built inside a ruined Convent and spacious housing, both for needy locals and to rehouse families living in the ruined Convent, says the Office’s former Head of Design Juliet Barclay.

Juliet is adamant that no American money would tempt Cuba to allow a free market in Havana. “No-one in their right mind would advocate an indiscriminate opening-up of the area to general and foreign investment.” she says, warning that Cubans "will have to … fortify their cultural bastions against the stifling blanket of North American homogeneity which is already flapping threateningly in their direction.”

Despite continued investment controls, Canadian and European hotel chains are queuing to do joint venture deals with the Cuban state - as are their American competitors.

Not since the 1950s, when the Mafia held sway over Cuban dictator Batista and planned another 100 hotels along the white sands of East Havana have there been so many foreign companies eyeing up hotel projects on Cuba. But Cuba is not China or Vietnam. This time it’s not going to be a western style free for all.

Using culture to circumnavigate politics

The Cuban art and cultural scene is flourishing – the Cuban National Ballet tours internationally as do their orchestras and composers. Some visual artists who use their art to openly criticise the state have chosen to live abroad (if they’ve had the means) but the Cuban state also supports 13,000 registered artists and funds number of respected art schools. The Cuba based sculptor Esterio Seguro is exhibiting in California, two places in Old Havana, as well as Cuba’s National Gallery of Fine Art. His installations poke fun at religious symbols and hint at freedom, incarceration and frustration.

The Cuban duo Los Carpinteros, whose powerful installations express a defiant anger against Cuba’s totalitarianism, have chosen to live in Madrid. One of their exhibits, currently on show at London’s Parasol unit, is Altoparlante Solimar, a monolithic black box in the shape of an iconic 1944 built Havana apartment block.  Each flat in the block consists of a loudspeaker, as if emphasising the conversations and voices of their residents that cannot be heard outside the building.

Art critics say the state may be starting to relax the restrictions on political art. Los Carpinteros were allowed to put on a live dance installation in Havana in 2012. The video of the event (also showing in the Parasol unit) of exuberant costumed dancers moving backwards down the Prado shows the large crowds who gathered to watch the show: artists using Cuban dance to challenge a rigidly enforced ban on public gatherings.

"Excerpt from Conga Irreversible, 2012 © Los Carpinteros . The full film is part of the Los Carpinteros exhibition at London's Parasol unit, 14 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW until May 24th" 


The emerging new middle class

It’s likely that reform will bring more inequality to Cuba. There are already visible differences in living standards. Criss-crossing the country you’ll see working people queuing for ramshackle “chicken buses”, or a lift on a cart and horse, at all the key intersections – journeys that add hours to their working day. In the Trinidad region, once capital of Cuban’s slave-run sugar plantations, rural people – mainly black - struggle onto dilapidated trains in the heat every day to get home. Public transport is a catastrophe everywhere in Cuba as it's had no investment for decades. So Cubans have learnt to wait. Contrast their lives with those enterprising town dwellers who have enough hard currency to install a private shower for their B&B. Or the owner of a vintage American car who lives off lucrative rides to tourists and can afford the parts to fix the engine when it breaks down – or even to replace it with a brand new Japanese one. Clearly a new middle class is emerging, even if few of them can afford to buy a cold drink at a tourist bar.

Cubans seem without exception friendly and open to tourists. Occasionally their faces betray life’s hardships. The tiny Museum of the Bay of Pigs in Matanzas province is a memorial to the failed armed invasion of CIA -backed Cuban exiles in 1961 and their attempt to overthrow the Revolution.  It gets only a few desultory visitors these days. A corridor displaying fading black and white photos, military uniforms, old weapons and posters praising the heroism of the young militias who repelled the attack. It is staffed by rather glum looking middle-aged women in uniform wearing regulation government fishnet tights. A 2 CUC entrance fee and another 1 CUC to take photos. But museum staff can’t live on their wages. So their disappointment was palpable when I had no cash to tip for my loo paper.

In the former grand homes of plantation owners in Cienfuegos and Trinidad, museum staff explain that they live not on their wages but on the crochet and lace pieces they offer discreetly to sell you in exchange for your hard currency.  The hours of salsa music emanating from virtually every bar and restaurant doesn't just lift the spirits of tourists  but also keeps thousands of Cuban families in basic essentials.

Cuban intellectuals are joining the tourist bandwagon. It’s reported that some 14,000 school teachers have gone sick leaving unqualified teachers in charge. Several university professors now combine their day job with running private tours of Havana – a handy way to augment a monthly salary of around $40. We met one who had dumped the day job altogether and does tours full time in the vintage convertible, giving tourists the dubious thrill of driving down the Malacon in a cloud of toxic leaded petrol (Cuba relies on Venezuela for affordable oil deliveries and its Russian built refineries don’t run to lead-free varieties).

Can Cuba’s economy grow fast enough to accommodate Cubans’ hunger for 21st Century western living standards? The internet is a case in point. Access to the country’s dial-up internet is limited to the few town dwellers with the money. They might get online half an hour a day if it’s working (tourists queue at a top hotel and pay $4.50 for just an hour of access). This is not just a question of lack of investment but also state policy: historically the Castro government dealt with threats to its rule, notably from hostile Cuban exiles in Miami, by clamping down on communication (all newspapers are state owned and controlled).

However the new private business crave email; these days the owners of casas particulares are using the internet to take B&B bookings directly from overseas visitors. And Cubans with relatives abroad can receive online copies of the overseas press. They have a long way to go though. One academic I spoke to was stunned to hear how Wi-Fi is almost ubiquitous in the west.

Word has it that European telecoms firms are now poised to invest in a Cuban broadband network. It’s hard to imagine the internet remaining available only to the small elite who have access to hard currency. The forces of the global digital revolution lap at Cuba’s shores, pushing the state to relax its grip.

Opening communications with the rest of the world is bound to embolden ordinary citizens to seize the opportunities they find there. A case in point are the many qualified doctors that Cuba has been sending around the world to work in developing countries. Cuba has trained more medical professionals per capita than any other developing or developed country. In 2010 it had 6.7 doctors for every 1,000 citizens (nearly three times the US figure). The Government has sent more doctors to West Africa to fight Ebola than any other country and says a total of 50,000 doctors and nurses are currently working in 66 countries. This “doctors without borders” style programme is the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner – far exceeding remittances from the three million Cubans living abroad or tourism.

But not all doctors are happy with the fact that the Cuban Government takes the lion’s share of the fees paid by the host country. Newsweek recently reported the defection of a Cuban doctor working in Brazil when she learned that she had earned only a tenth of what the Cuban state collected through her contract.

These are the type of contradictions that may well bedevil a system that has kept its citizens cut off from global trends and yet which is driven to open up its economy if it is to meet the needs of its people.

Obama has started a dialogue that may yet stall on myriad issues, not least the thorny issue of restitution or compensation that Cuban exiles might demand for houses, land or firms nationalised after the 1959 Revolution.

Notwithstanding their hunger for change, many Cubans are intensely proud of the country’s achievements. Most are also adamant that whatever concessions are made in the talks with the US, Cuba's political leaders will not sacrifice its education and health systems. But there’ll be little resistance to the globalisation of Cuba among ordinary citizens if it means an end to shortages.

Alison Rooper is a documentary filmmaker and executive producer who makes films for broadcasters and organisations around the world. She got to know Central America during the 1980s when she authored the book Fragile Victory: a Nicaraguan Community at War. She recently completed a short film about the work of the UNDP in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

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